Analyzing the Grizzlies Offense: Myths and Realities

Last season the Grizzlies thought they had enough offensive weapons. With Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley, the offense was never supposed to be a problem. But offense was a problem -- it was a serious problem -- and the Grizzlies finished 28th in the league in efficiency.

Then why, when Memphis looked to add scoring this offseason, did analysts complain that there wouldn't be enough shots to go around? Zach Randolph was supposed to be a possession sink and black hole, dropping team efficiency into oblivion.

Surprise, surprise, turns out that they were wrong.

See this type of thing happens all the time. Players and teams get stuck in their stereotypes and storylines. The media does it all the time, but none of us are blameless. It's simply either easier to repeat the dominant message, or we just don't yet have the complete information to understand all the changes around the Association.

Now that the season is over and all the information is there, though, it's time to sort out the dominant perceptions. Over the jump are eight stories about the Memphis Grizzlies offense -- some are myths, some are facts, but all of them will be challenged.

First I have to give an enormous shout-out to the guys at Synergy Sports Tech, who's new My Synergy technology is going to totally change the game. I'm also using classic standbys Basketball Prospectus and 82games.com.

1) The Memphis Grizzlies are a young, run-and-gun team.

If a team is young, unsuccessful, and has at least one athletic wing, chances are they will be labelled as a "fast break squad" or as running the "seven seconds or less" offense. Contrary to this belief, the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Hornets, and Washington Wizards all played at average or below average pace this season.

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Mike Conley is so not Emilio Estevez.

In fact pace is, for the most part, far more standardized than announcers would like you to think. In the 2009-2010 season, 19 of the 30 teams were between 93.5 and 96.5 possessions per game. So the Cleveland Cavaliers, the 25th slowest team, were only 1.5 possessions per game -- something like 1 field goal attempt -- slower than average. The Sacramento Kings, the 7th fastest team, were only about 1 field goal attempt faster than average. That's 2 shots a game between 7th and 25th.

Even though the Grizzlies were 8th in the league in pace, they were getting barely  possession per game more than average. Just 5 teams were above 2 possessions per games faster than the median, and the Memphis Grizzlies weren't among them. 

But that doesn't mean the Grizzlies didn't get out and use their speed, 13.5% of the Grizzlies offensive possessions were run in transition -- that's equal to the Suns, well above the Knicks, and just below the Thunder. Considering the Grizz shot 61% on the run, that's a pretty solid boost.

Myth - While the Grizz were faster than average, turns out that, unless you're in a handful of about 5 teams on either end of the spectrum, chances are you're neither a serious grind-it-out squad or taking quick ones much more often than anyone else. That being said, the Grizzlies did get out and run in transition with the best of them.

2) The Memphis Grizzlies don't pass the ball well or often.

If Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Zach Randolph, and even Mike Conley have anything in common, it's that they're all isolation scorers. Players who are know for their ability to create their own shot are often lumped into the category of selfish -- even guys like Kobe or Carmelo aren't exempt from this rule when they're losing -- and most of the Grizzlies have that reputation.

It didn't help matters that last season the Grizzlies were by far at the bottom of the league in assists. Suddenly Mike Conley was no point guard, O.J. Mayo couldn't pass, and Rudy Gay was selfish.

Turns out this criticism isn't completely unwarranted. Memphis was again dead last in assist rate this season, only partially because Mike Conley was 18th in assists per game and tied for 22nd in assists per 48 minutes among all point guards. O.J. Mayo seemed to make strides in his playmaking ability, finishing at 11th in assists per game, but was still 22nd among shooting guards in assists per 48 minutes.

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So the guards aren't great, and the story on Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph is close to the same. Both are top 15 in assists per game and below 20th in assists per 48 minutes.

The bright spot, of course, was Marc Gasol, who was among the top 5 passing centers in the entire league. It's not surprising, then, that the Grizzlies averaged just 15.5 assists -- compared to 18.8 on  average -- in March without Marc working in the high post.

But no center makes up for the Grizzlies distinct lack of passing. Of course, this is partially self-reinforcing, Coach Hollins ran far more isolation sets (15.1% iso, 14.1 post-up) then the average team because of his personnel, which only further depresses their passing output.

Reality - Even though the Grizzlies system isn't particularly well suited to assists, relying on mostly isolation and offensive put-backs, guys like Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, and Rudy Gay are definitely proving that they are below average passers for their positions.

3) Mike Conley is not a traditional point guard and is better suited to play off the bench.

I've said it myself, Mike Conley needs to go 6th man and put his scoring hat on more often. Because of his low assist count but, occasionally, solid shooting off the dribble, Conley seems like an ideal candidate for a scoring punch off the bench.

As it turns out, Mike Conley game isn't really Steve Nash or Jamal Crawford. Conley doesn't run the pick and roll nearly as often, or as efficiently, as a quality point guard. But he also doesn't attack from isolation as often, and slightly less effectively, as most sixth men.

Perhaps the closest comparison is Jason Terry, a quasi-point guard. The big difference between Conley and Terry is that Terry gets run off screens way more often for shots, while Conley does handle on the pick and roll more often to make up the difference. These two quick, little guys have very similar efficiencies from almost every play type, and Conley probably should be shooting off screens more often then he does, since he's the Grizzlies second best deep threat and is quick enough to roll off the screen.

Obviously the Grizz didn't have a more able replacement to start at the point, so it's difficult to claim that Conley should have been playing sixth man during the season, but this is useful to keep in mind going forward. Mike was by far more efficient than Sam Young, and probably should be the show off the bench.

Myth and reality, just because Conley has no clear replacement - Mike probably belongs in a platoon where he can be super-aggressive in the second unit, while the first unit has a game-manager and three point shooter. Don't be surprised if the front office moves in this direction in the off-season.

4) O.J. Mayo should be taking the big shots -OR- Rudy Gay should be taking the big shots.

Using 82games.com's clutch statistics it's easy to check out all the Grizzlies clutch minutes, using the definition:

4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.

Turns out that Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo were both pathetic at the end of close games. Rudy shot just 38% from the field and 23% from three. O.J. shot 27% and 25% from deep, but did score more than Rudy because he took slightly more shots during crunch time.

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So who's the most clutch Grizzly? Surprise -- it's Marc Gasol, who shot 58%, albeit shooting only about half as often as Rudy Gay. Zach Randolph was also solid, with a 48% field goal percentage, pretty much dead equal to his season averages.

Both myths - Everybody wants perimeter scoring late in games because that's the realm of the star, but the Grizzlies should have been pounding. That's hardly surprising, it's tough to defend in the paint any different in the last few minutes than you do all game, and the Grizz bigs were often awfully good through the first 43 minutes.

5) Zach Randolph is a black-hole (alternatively, he's a true #1 option), he demands the ball and always shoots.

I can see why the national media, some Clippers, and some Knicks blamed Zach Randolph for their problems. The dude looks like a scapegoat. His offensive game is often "bad" turn-around jumpers, awkward handles, no hops, and a few botched layups instead of dunks.

Too bad Zach hardly uses more possessions than any other Grizzly in the team's normal half-court offense. His usage rating was 26.6, which basically means he used a quarter of his team's possessions. But about 30% of his shots came off offensive rebounds, in transition, and during cuts, and he nailed those almost 60% of the time, so no complaints.

So adjusted to count out the possessions that nobody is complaining about, Zach's usage was more like 19. Using the same method, Rudy Gay had about the exact same usage. Even Conley's usage stayed up around 17.

Myth - Even though Randolph was a little more efficient than a few other quality #1 guys like Joe Johnson or Brandon Jennings, he didn't seem to over-assert himself. Grizzlies fans aren't complaining about Randolph this year because there was no problem this season.

6) Rudy Gay is not a top scorer for a winning team.

Lets talk about NBA wings who we call legitimate #1 options. I've got Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Danny Granger, Joe Johnson. And Joe Johnson might not even be there any longer, with the Hawks proving he's better suited to share with Jamal Crawford.

Now of course these guys shoot a whole lot more than Rudy, which pushes up their points per game, but intuitively we know a bunch of them should be shooting more often.

That's hardly questionable, besides a couple glaring exceptions. Carmelo Anthony scored just .01 more points-per-possession than Rudy despite having close to the highest usage in the league, and Kobe Bryant -- I repeat, Kobe Bryant -- also scored .01 points-per-possession less efficiently than Rudy.

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Of course both these guys have way higher overall offensive efficiencies than Gay because they pass much better and draw more double teams, but in terms of pure scoring, Rudy stacks up well.

That being said, Rudy isn't up there with the other guys, and he's still not quite comparable because these other scorers face gameplans dedicated solely to stopping them. Still this type of evidence does suggest that Rudy probably could take on a bigger role if a team built a tough defense around his skills.

Reality - Rudy Gay scores about as well as some of the top guys in the game, including Kobe Bryant, but he doesn't fill the other responsibilities of a true franchise scorer. The stats do show enough potential, though, to make a team with Rudy scoring about 25 a game an interesting experiment.

7) Two top three point shooters is enough for a lineup.

Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo both shot almost 39% from deep. Thats definitely better than average for a starting point guard - shooting guard combination. In fact, by my estimation, just Cleveland and Phoenix were much better.

Too bad it definitely was nowhere near enough. Memphis made the least three-pointers in the NBA, shot the least three-pointers, and were in the bottom 5 in terms of three point percentage.

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At least the Grizzlies understood their weakness and didn't shoot too many three's for their skill-set, like, say, the L.A. Clippers, who were around the middle in attempts and shot a worse percentage than the Grizzles.

Myth - Obviously the bench has a whole lot to do with the Grizz's weakness at three-point shooting, with Sam Young and Marcus Williams shooting awful from deep, but even the starting lineup could use Rudy Gay learning how to extend his range effectively. Three's are an obvious problem for the Grizz, and they'll have to address their lack of shooters this summer.

8) The Grizzlies core improved this year, but aren't good enough offensively to ever be a top team in the West.

What I'm referencing here, as most of you from Memphis have probably seen, is this op-ed from the Commercial Appeal. Geoff Calkins argues:It was remarkable, really, because it started from a common assumption:

If the Grizzlies retain their core young players, adding role players along the way, they will grow and mature into a championship contender.

Which is not only laughable, it's dangerous. And it explains why the Grizzlies aren't in a better position today.

Let's not mince meat getting to the argument -- at least on offense, this is just flat-out wrong.

For all the complaints about using advanced stats for specific players, team efficiency is undeniable. We can count possessions, we can count points. We know exactly how many points per possession, or points per 100 possessions, every team's starting five scores.

The Memphis Grizzlies are among the best in the league with 115 points per 100 possessions. The starting lineup was +225 over the course of the season on the back of their offense.

The Cavs best starting lineup -- Mo Will, Anthony Parker, LeBron, Jamison, and Hickson -- had an efficiency of exactly 115 points per 100 possessions. Denver's was just 109.  Dallas's was 114. The Lakers efficiency was 115, just like the Grizz. 

In case you haven't caught the trend, here's a few more for you: Orlando - 115, Phoenix - 118 with Frye starting and 115 with Lopez, Atlanta - 109, Boston - 113, Thunder - 108, and Portland - 118.

In other words, as much as we can point fingers, the Grizzlies starting lineup had a championship quality offense this season. And it was the Grizz's first year playing together. Just imagine what could happen next year...

Myth - The Grizzlies starting core was one of the absolute best at putting the ball in the basket in the entire NBA. Nobody should be knocking their play, the obvious problem was the bench, who the Grizzlies will have plenty of chances to replace with 3 picks upcoming in this year's draft and an enormous free agent class.

Everybody who watched knew the Grizzlies were successful on offense this season, but I doubt many pundits know just how successful the core of the Grizz was on the offensive end this year. The Grizz might not play that fast paced, pass well, or finish well in the clutch. Mike Conley might not be a true point and Rudy Gay probably isn't a franchise scorer. But despite, or maybe even because of, these "flaws" the Memphis Grizzlies's starters were top-tier scorers.

Disclosure: Synergy Sports Tech has provided Straight Outta Vancouver with a free My Synergy account.

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